Georgia On His Mind?

By Arnab Datta

Dec 1, 2008 1:37pm

ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: Tuesday’s run-off Senate election in Georgia is the first big test of President-elect Barack Obama’s political machine and coattails.

Except if it isn’t. And if it isn’t, that has a lot to do with the careful way the new president-elect plays politics.

The race between Democrat Jim Martin and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., is worth watching on several levels — one of which is the fact that this is first race in American history that’s testing, on the day before the election, the political muscle of Gov. Sarah Palin against that of the rapper Ludacris.

Beyond that, the race is instructive for those curious about how Obama intends to expend his political capital.

Knowing, surely, that the Democrat is unlikely to prevail in Georgia, Obama is carefully calibrating his involvement in the race. The state-level organization he activated during the primaries is back in action, and he’s got some key operatives working for Martin.

Obama has also recorded a radio ad and a robocall for Martin. But, despite an open invitation from Martin’s team (as well as private and public lobbying), Obama has stopped short of the ultimate: a campaign appearance in Georgia.

Sen. John McCain chose Georgia for his first political stop since losing the election. Republicans including Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee have made stops for Chambliss, and Palin is working the state hard for him Monday, as my colleague Teddy Davis reports.

Democrats not named Obama are turning out for Martin: Bill Clinton and Al Gore have both campaigned in the state in recent weeks. And the last time Georgia had a runoff Senate election, President-elect Bill Clinton campaigned for Democrat Wyche Fowler in November 1992. (Fowler lost despite the help.)

A public event featuring Obama would have been huge — ask organizers in Chicago, or those preparing for the inaugural in Washington, what an Obama crowd can look like. An Obama appearance could only drive up Democratic — and, particularly, African-American — turnout.

Democrats are within striking distance of the magical Senate number of 60 (they’ll have at least a 58-member caucus come January, pending Georgia’s runoff and Minnesota’s recount) and would love to pick up a precious seat in the Deep South.

But — and here’s the point Team Obama must be taking into all calculations — Martin is a long shot going into Tuesday’s election. Chambliss came just two-tenths of a percentage point away from topping 50 percent and avoiding a runoff in the first round of voting, and polls show him the likely winner Tuesday, now that the Libertarian candidate is out of the race.

If Obama had gone down to Georgia and Martin lost anyway, it would surely have been read as a statement on the limits of his political sway. Plus, a partisan appearance would undercut the message of comity and cooperation he’s trying to project these days. So why take that chance?

If Martin pulls it out, one of the reasons cited will, undoubtedly, be Obama’s coattails — the operation he has in place in Georgia, the ads he cut, and the lingering after-effects of his sweeping presidential victory.

The fact that he hasn’t showed up in Georgia causes some grumbling among Georgia Democrats, but not much more than that.

What do you think of Obama’s play?

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